SA man jailed for selling nuclear parts

By Peter Fabricius, Josh Meyer and Michael Schmidt

Cape Town attorney Michael Bagraim helped to get Cape Town businessman Asher Karni arrested last year for smuggling nuclear bomb parts to Pakistan and India. But he had mixed feelings this week when a United States court sentenced Karni to three years in jail.

Bagraim is chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Karni is a fellow Jew. Bagraim believes that Karni perhaps did not understand the enormity of what he was doing. But then again, Karni being Jewish possibly made it worse, he thinks.

"If he really sold nuclear material as he is accused of doing, then he deserved what he got," Bagraim said. "He might have been unwitting, but even so it is a hard lesson to others not to deal in weapons of mass destruction.

"If you see what happened in London... one of my biggest fears is that international terrorists will get their hands on much bigger bombs than that. If this conviction stops someone like that, then I applaud it."

As a member of the Jewish community, which had borne a disproportionate brunt of terrorism, Karni should have known better, he said.

US Federal District Judge Richard Urbina sentenced Karni, who is a former Israeli army major, in Washington on Thursday. He said he wanted to warn others that the illegal sale of US high-tech products on the black market could help foreign governments or terrorists obtain weapons of mass destruction.

While working for the legitimate high-tech firm Eagle Technology in Cape Town during the 1990s, Karni began doing business on the side, smuggling spark-gap triggers - which can be used in constructing nuclear weapons - from a US firm to a Pakistani businessman, Humayun Khan.

Khan is believed to have been involved in Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

The triggers are so-called "dual use" items that have either civilian or military uses. Because of their civilian applications it is legal to sell them to countries such as South Africa but not to countries like Pakistan, suspected of using them to make nuclear bombs.

So Karni imported them to South Africa, saying they were to be used in a machine for breaking kidney stones in Johannesburg's Chris Hani/Baragwanath Hospital. But then he passed them on to Khan in Pakistan.

His illegal scheme came to light by chance. His bosses at Eagle Technology discovered he was doing business on the side - without realising the full import of it - and fired him.

Karni took them to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in September 2003 to demand a year's back pay. That is where Bagraim came in, as Eagle Technology's legal representative at the hearing.

Going to the CCMA proved to be a huge mistake, not only because Karni didn't get his back pay but also, ultimately, because he lost his freedom. Bagraim began probing his business dealings and discovering incriminating emails in his Eagle Technology computer about his Pakistani business.

Then an "anonymous tipster", as the US prosecutors put it, began monitoring Karni's every move and feeding the nuclear plot details to them.

Karni made another extraordinary mistake on January 1 2004 when, despite an earlier visit to his premises in Cape Town by investigators, he flew to the US on a skiing holiday. US authorities pounced on him at Denver International Airport and he has been in custody ever since.

In April last year, retired major-general MK Paul, controller of the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Bangalore, India, claimed at a talk at the South African Institute of International Affairs at Wits University that Karni's actions had upset the delicate nuclear balance in south Asia between India and Pakistan, which both openly declared themselves nuclear states after a series of tests in 1998 but have refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Yet in Karni's trial this week US prosecutors also disclosed that he had been selling the spark-gap triggers to India, although they did not divulge details. Their investigations continue.

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